Why The Over Use Of Writing Stimuli & Book Planning Could Be Damaging Children’s Writing Potential.

I should start out by stating quite clearly that this is not an article advocating for the removal of all stimuli or book inspired writing tasks from classrooms. I myself use them. However, this article looks to reflect on what contemporary writing and research is telling us about these dominant writing pedagogies.

We begin with some wise words from Donald Graves, writer, teacher, researcher and thinker:

‘Children want to write’.

In this post I want to suggest, through use of research findings, that the provision by teachers of cross-curricular ‘topics’ or ‘writing stimuli’ for writing in schools could be inhibiting the desire for children to write. As a result this may effect the quality of their writing too. Is it the case that too few children are realising that they can do more with writing than simply imitate adults? Is there another way of offering topic choice which can redress this?

“Ideally, no pupil should be given a writing task which does not yield them enough fruit in their own terms, so that they can feel it is worth doing” – John Dixon (p.78)

If you agree with John Dixon’s assertion, the question you will ask yourself is: what do children want to write? It is true that all children have experiences and interests in their own lives which they could bring to writing, and that teachers could make it possible for them to do so. An incident, a person, a preoccupation, an opinion, a question, a memory, a curiosity, a story – all these are personal resources available for children to draw on as valuable and valid subjects for writing in school. Yet, in the dominant writing pedagogies, according to research (Dockrell, et al, 2015), the choice of topic is almost always chosen by the teacher. Dockrell states that ‘virtually no teacher reported not using them.‘  Therefore are children too often subjected to external ‘stimuli’? Stimuli such as:

  • Video or films,
  • Whole-class literature study, 
  • Talk-For-Writing (read our article about Talk For Writing here),
  • Pictures or excerpts from non-fiction texts.

“Children can write letters to the man on the moon. They can write a diary of the classroom hamster. They can write warning notices designed for sites of nuclear waste. The outcomes from such tasks may look effective and may provide useful practice in following conventions. Nevertheless, without the use of an underlying rationale and some attention to other aspects… such writing may only have short-term value.” – Roger Beard (2000).

Children are then expected to respond to these stimuli. There is obviously benefits to such approaches. However, if used to often are children’s own desires not being realised? Do children learn they are only ever to be consumers of writing as opposed to authentic producers? Is it tough for children to find intrinsic motivation to grow as a writer when given too readily a series of arbitrary, inauthentic writing assignments. According to The National Literacy Trust’s work (2017) this may well be the case. When a child asks ‘How much do I need to write’ or ‘How many sentences does it have to be’ or ‘I’ve finished!’. Do we know they have not been inspired to do the best writing they could do?

Incidentally, according to Jacobson (2010), writing stimuli tend to inspire ‘list writing’. She states that this is because we often ask children to write on demand. When children are asked to write on a topic they have just been presented with, where their funds of knowledge are low, they tend to brainstorm on the paper all that has been made available on the topic by the teacher and turn this list of everything that came to mind into a piece of writing. Jacobson alludes that this will often result in a poor piece of writing which lacks organisation or quality detail. I guess a prompt will either interest a child or it won’t and the quality of writing will always reflect this. Another issue with prompts is that often we think them up and never actually try them for ourselves before hand. The reality is that when children care about what they write, they bring an energy and will to the writing. They want it to succeed.

“When we assign topics we create a welfare system, putting children, our students on to writers’ welfare” – Donald Graves (1982)

“Bodies of knowledge – about life, about books, about words – are among the products of their work. It is possible to regard these bodies of knowledge as the ‘content’ for a writing lesson – though not everyone would be happy with this view” – John Dixon (p.74)

An arbitrarily assigned topic, with an error-hunting teacher as the sole audience, may do little for the writer, whereas a topic the writers cares about and an audience responsive to what the writer has to say are the essential ingredients for a profitable experience” – Bereiter & Scardamalia

Maybe this is why The Literacy Trust has recently stated that children’s attitudes towards writing is worsening and that fewer children are writing at home or for pleasure? It’s well known that even very young children will ‘write’ spontaneously and readily about things which have made an impression on them in their daily lives. So how and why is it that we as teachers feel responsible for providing older children with a stimulus in which to write (inauthentically)?

To diminish the potential for individual meaningfulness in students’ work is a denial of their basic humanity – Willinsky (1990)

Writing tasks set by any teacher (including myself) are very often derived from the foundation subjects such as history or geography, and are thus termed ‘cross-curricular’ topics. What is the rationale for our thinking here? Is it simply to provide children with a subject on which to hang ‘practising writing’ in a particular genre – in effect, a form of writing exercise? It is possible that we as teachers see cross-curricular writing as an opportunity for children to show their understanding of a geographical location or an historical event(s). Maybe we see it as an opportunity for pupils to express a feeling of empathy for a character caught up in a particular moment in history, or simply a way to cram extra foundation subject work into the timetable? Unfortunately though, as a teacher who specialised in History & Geography before gaining an MA in Education with Linguistics,  when I plan these lessons, they produce neither a decent historical/geographical piece of writing nor a good literary one. This is because I’m effectively asking children to make an imaginative leap into someone else’s psyche or produce writing on the basis of a new and often very limited ‘fund of knowledge’. On top of this, I often have them negotiate this new found knowledge further through literary requirements such as noun phrases, embedded clauses, the passive voice and fronted adverbials. Now, a few children will occasionally be inspired by these topics; fewer will be able to produce a satisfying piece of writing. The reality is that all too often you receive a collection of stilted, inauthentic and depressingly similar pieces.

To not affirm and respect student voices is both morally wrong, because it disparages who students are and what they know, and strategically a mistake, because students will resist becoming active partners in teaching and learning. – Lensmire (2000)

‘Our best guides are the things pupils come up and talk about – their individual and group interests rather than an external ‘stimuli’ or book (which necessarily cannot know their particular circumstances or desires)…[therefore what is needed is] a questing exploratory atmosphere in a writing classroom.’ John Dixon (p.86)

Should the curriculum address the fact that children should be taught how to generate their own ideas for writing? If we don’t would we be inadvertently training children in to be dependent rather than independent writers? Writing prompts, story starters and stimuli are just a few ways we communicate to children that they might not be capable of writing and thinking on their own. According to Jacobson (2010), stimuli are also incredibly inefficient ways of getting children to write. They waste valuable writing time.

The question we are asking here I guess is: why do we require pupils to jump through these hoops when we could be inviting them to write about what they are expert in, authentically, with engagement and interest, for a purpose and audience of their own choosing and in a (learned) genre which suits their intention- in short, what they are capable of doing from their own centre?

A Facebook post from a reader of this post said:

I agree with many points in this article, but what about those children that cannot think of anything to write about? The ones that do nothing on the weekend except watch TV or play on the computer? The ones that have very little life experience to bring to the table? Often the anxiety of having to generate ideas is the hardest part of writing for these children. Sometimes a teacher directed task or stimulus is the right thing to do for some of our children. It can’t be a one size fits all, need to differentiate!

Whilst reading our article, you may have been wondering the same thing. What could self-directed subject choice look like practically? Would it work in a real classroom?

Writing assignments without a background of discussion and shared experience are unlikely to elicit much response from many children Dixon (1966)

Well, a colleague and I have been working for some time on producing a new pedagogy for writing in the primary school which begins with children making their own choice of subject. You can read about it here.

We must stress at this point that we are in no way advocating the withdrawal of the teacher’s assistance when children are choosing a theme. There are many ways of supporting children to generate their own ideas, in the form of: 

  • Idea hearts or idea maps,
  • Asking themselves ‘What if..?’ questions
  • Generating ‘When I was little…’ statements 
  • ‘What makes me angry, scared, upset, happy’ lists, 
  • Deciding to use ideas from the books they have chosen and read,
  • Deciding for themselves to use the topic(s) they are studying/ have studied in foundation subjects.

To read about how this is done in our classroom, you may like to read our ‘The Sea Of Writing Ideas: How We Got Children Choosing Their Own Writing Ideas’ article here.

We regularly read children Michael Rosen poems. He takes the most boring and ordinary life events and makes them extraordinary. We get them to go home and write a list of ‘poems hide in‘ statements – this is where they run around their house and write down things that they could write poems about. Finally, with some of our most inexperienced writers, we ask them to bring artefacts in from home which they could write about. We ask them to draw pictures that they could then write about. No child is a floating blob in time and space – they all have experiences, passions and treasured objects – we just need to make them feel they are legitimate and that we want to hear about them in fun and creative ways!

In his review of 100 years of literacy research, Hillocks (2011) forcefully stated, “We know from a very wide variety of studies in English and out of it, that students who are authentically engaged with the tasks of their learning are likely to learn much more than those who are not” (p. 189).

“Effects [are] most positive when the teacher gears the level of work to pupils’ needs but not where all pupils worked individually on exactly the same piece of writing” – Roger Beard (2000)

We appreciate that this shift from imposing tasks and themes for writing to allowing children to write about what they would like is an ideologically profound one – and you can read more about that here. We as teachers found it difficult to relinquish apparent control and pass the responsibility to our pupils (a question of trust). Teachers may fear that children’s self-chosen themes will be superficial or trivial (again, a lack of trust). They may even make the assumption that the resultant writing will not have the same ‘quality’ as a piece whose theme is secured by them. To allay these fears, I would ask us to consider the following observations made at the coal-face:

In our experience, children’s freedom to write about what interests and motivates them, what has amused or struck them, what they care about, love or hate, carries many benefits. Assisting a child with a theme is not the same as imposing a topic for children to write about. Imposing writing topics upon children is an act of linguistic oppression which shouldn’t be underesitmated. We believe that quality writing cannot emerge without an underlying authentic intention. That is not to say that in some circumstances there may be an adequate reason for requiring children to write to a given theme, to explore an issue in a particular subject area, for example. But if our aim is to help a child learn to write then we have to accept that the consequence of  selected themes being forced upon children is to make their writing less probable or profitable. It very often becomes an imposition and does not help children to become  real writers – just writers of writing exercises.

The children in our class, however, genuinely love making their own choice of topic. They have said so many times. They are intent on writing. Many have now acquired their very own notebooks in which they jot down ideas and try out pieces – often at home, at playtimes or in their free-time.

We believe the most direct and relevant way for a teacher to demonstrate to a pupil the power of writing is to write with them and give them the opporunity to write what is motivating to them. You can read about how we do this through Pupil Conferencing, here.

They come to understand all the functions of writing – to share and communicate, explore issues, explain or persuade, entertain and inform, get through a hard time, re-live a good time or work out a problem. They begin to write like real writers, readily sharing their work with their peers and giving and accepting helpful criticism. Not all topics will prove to be what Graves calls ‘hot topics’. But children will be practising the craft of writing until their hot topic comes along. They will learn that they are producers of content, not simply there to rehash or consume other people’s writing ideas and desires. You can read about why this is so important here.

As teachers, we positively look forward to reading such a wide variety of writing pieces. And feel excitement and motivation ourselves.

Because teachers are faced with the challenging task of balancing the demands of national standards and high-stakes writing exercises, authenticity should be a primary consideration when developing writing instruction. One reason to focus on authenticity even within the context of high-stakes accountability is because overly structured, teacher-directed writing instruction that constrains student expression are not supported by research on effective writing practices. Research has established that a process approach is the superior method to increase writing achievement (Cremin, 2011, DCSF, 2009, DfE, 2012, Education Endowment Fund, 2017, Graham & Perin, 2007, Ofsted, 2009, 2011, Writing Is Primary, 2009). It has been recognised too the pupils write more effectively if they have chosen an authentic context and have a clear purpose in their own minds (Beard, 2000). Therefore, writing instruction that neglects students’ personal, global, and community funds of knowledge related to writing has been shown to decrease student motivation and interest in writing (Au & Gourd, 2013; Dyson & Freedman, 2003; Ketter & Pool, 2001; Watanabe, 2007) with The National Literacy Trust (2017) linking motivation to write with writing achievement in the clearest terms. Children are seven times more likely to attain academic expectations in writing if they are motivated. It is clear then that motivation is the clearest way towards writing achievement and the biggest motivator is agency in topic choice.  

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**Please note that the views expressed on this blog are informed by the research and writings below and may not represent our employer.**

  • Au, W., & Gourd, K. (2013). Asinine assessment: why high-stakes testing is bad for everyone, including English teachers. English Journal, 103(1), 14–19
  • Beard, R., (2000) Developing Writing 3-13 London: Hodder & Stoughton
  • Bereiter, C., Scardamalia, M. In Beard, R., (1993) Teaching Literacy Balancing Perspectives Hodder & Stoughton: London
  • Bernstein, B. (1996) Pedagogy, Symbolic Control and Identity, London, Taylor and Francis.
  • Canagarajah, S. (2004) ‘Subversive identities, pedagogical safe houses and critical learning’ in Norton, B. and Toohey, K. (eds) Critical Pedagogies and Language Learning, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
  • Cremin, T., (2011) Writing Voices: Creating Communities Of Writers London: Routledge
  • Dockrell, J., Marshell, C., Wyse, D., (2015) Teacher’reported practices for teaching writing in England In Read Write 29:409-434
  • Dyson, A. H., & Freedman, S. W. (2003). Writing. In J. Flood, J. Jensen, D. Lapp, & R. J. Squire (Eds.), Handbook of research on teaching the English language arts (pp. 967–992). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
  • Flint, A. S., & Laman, T. T. (2012). Where Poems Hide: Finding Reflective, Critical Spaces Inside Writing Workshop In Theory Into Practice, 51(1), 12-19
  • Gee, J. P. (2008) A sociocultural perspective on opportunity to learn In P. Moss, D. Pulin, J. P. Gee, E. Haertel and L. Young (eds) Assessment, Equity, and Opportunity to Learn (pp.76-108) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
  • Gonzalez, N., Moll, L. & Amanti, C. (eds) (2005) Funds of Knowledge: Theorizing Practices in Households, Communities, and Classroom, Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum
  • Graham, S., Berninger, V., & Fan, W. (2007). The structural relationship between writing attitude and writing achievement in first and third grade students In Contemporary Educational Psychology, 32(3), 516-536
  • Gregory, E., Arju, T., Jessel, J., Kenner, C. and Ruby, M. (2007) ‘Snow White in different guises: interlingual and intercultural exchanges between grandparents and young children at home in East London’, Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, vol. 7, no. 5, pp. 5–25.
  • Guerra, J. C. (2008). Cultivating transcultural citizenship: A writing across communities model In Language Arts, 85(4), 296–304.
  • Gutiérrez, K. (2008) ‘Developing a sociocritical literacy in the Third Space’, Reading Research Quarterly, vol. 43, no. 2, pp. 148–64.
  • Hillocks, G., Jr. (2011). Commentary on “Research in secondary English, 1912-2011: Historical continuities and discontinuities in the NCTE imprint.” Research in the Teaching of English, 46(2), 187-192.
  • Ketter, J., & Pool, J. (2001). Exploring the impact of a high-stakes direct writing assessment in two high school classrooms. Research in the Teaching of English, 35, 344–391
  • Lave, J. and Wenger, E. (1991) Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
  • Lensmire, T., (2000) Powerful Writing: Responsible Teaching Columbia University
  • Maybin. J. (2006) Children’s Voices: Talk, Knowledge & Identity London: Palgrave
  • Rogoff, B., Moore, L., Najafi, B., Dexter, A., Correa-Chavez, M. and Solis, J. (2007) Children’s development of cultural repertoires through participation in everyday routines and practices In J. E. Grusec and P. D. Hastings (eds) Handbook of Socialization: Theory & Research (pp.490-515) New York: Guildford Press
  • Tomasello, M. (2003) Constructing a Language: A usage-based Theory of Language Acquisition Cambridge: Harvard University Press
  • Tomasello, M. (2006) Acquiring linguistic constructions In R.S Siegler & D. Kuhn (eds), Handbook of Child Psychology: Cognitive Development (pp. 255-298) New York: Wiley
  • Watanabe, M., (2007) Displaced Teacher & State Priorities In A High-Stakes Accountability Context In Educational Policy, Vol.21(2), p.311-368
  • Willinksy, J., (1990) New Literacy: Redefining Reading and Writing in Schools London: Routledge

What If Almost Everything We Thought About The Teaching Of Writing Was Wrong?

This article is based on, and written in relation to, findings of educational research and writings see end of article). The tenor of this article is to allow the reader to reflect on children’s reading and is in no way a criticism of any school(s) policy or teachers’ practice.

Why Do We Write?

Language merely reflects our way of trying to make sense of the world. – Frank Smith

Frank Smith (1982) says ‘writing touches every part of our lives‘.

  1. One of the first reasons we write is because it is a tool for communication in culture. It gives us the ability to share information over time and space with multiple individuals (explaining, recounting & opinion).
  2. It can also be used as a permanent record or as a statement e.g. in history, geography  & science genres.
  3. The third cultural aspect for writing is artistry (narrative and poetry).
  4. Finally, there is also the personal aspect to writing. Writing allows us all to reflect, express our perceptions of self, to socially dream or to be critical (memoir).

By writing, we find out what we know; what we think. Writing is an extremely efficient way of gaining access to that knowledge that we cannot explore directly. – Frank Smith (1982, p.33)

For us, writing is a relationship between thought and language. When we write a first draft, we rehearse what is otherwise on our minds – whether we are conscious of this or not. Writing simply provides us with an opportunity to discover and then revise these thoughts in ways that we could not have imagined ourselves capable of when we first began our writing pursuit.

We, but also children, use writing to separate ourselves from our writing ‘work’ and so become more objective. Alternatively, we can use writing to do things that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. – this is what Gutierrez (2008) calls ‘social dreaming’.

Ultimately though, writing is a means for us to express ourselves in the world, make sense of the world or impose ourselves upon it.

Writing does more than reflect underlying thought, it liberates and develops it.- Frank Smith (1982, p.33)

Why Is There A Difference In Children’s Writing?

The question now is why do children write at school? For these purposes? – Not often. There is a massive discrepancy between the writing done in the real-world and that of the classroom. Why is this so? – Is it the case that we are just doing what has always been done and never reflected on the purpose of writing and thus the teaching of writing?

Donald Graves says ‘all children want to write’. It is just a case of allowing them to write about the things they are interested in. As Frank Smith says, ‘all children can write if they can speak it.’ If they can talk about it, they can write it down.

Most current writing pedagogy seems to be deliberately withholding from children the role of language in empowering and changing social relations. We believe teachers need to increase their consciousness, and the consciousness of their pupils, of how language contributes to their lives.

The current political agenda is clear for all to see:

These examples embody the ‘basic skills’ assumptions held by successive governments since the late 80’s which claim an authority which is supposedly natural and unshakable. Through current writing pedagogies, we as teachers are perpetuating the idea that we as teachers know, while children do not; that we as teachers are in a position to determine, while children are not and that children should simply comply, adapt to or cooperate with our writing tasks.

The above ideologies around writing consciously avoid giving prominence to language’s social origins; that language is both socially developed and socially developing. It is this perspective that is all too often missing in schools. The result is schools supporting the devaluing and neutralising of most children’s identities. We are producing writers as consumers (or at best imitators) when really we need to be encouraging a generation of producers. Producers who know early on in their lives that they have a writing-voice and know how best to use it. The current ways of representing language, listed earlier, inhibit children from coming to conceptualise language as an object for critical consciousness – that is, they prevent children from having a genuinely educational and educated orientation of language.

Writing in classrooms at present isn’t seen by children as important work. It fails to speak to the real needs pressing on the young. It doesn’t currently answer the burning question which day-to-day experiences force upon young minds. At present, problems encountered outside school walls are treated as peripheral when surely they should be central. The current effect of making writing abstract – subject centred – external to individual longings, fears, experiences, and questions, is to render children listless and indifferent. As John Taylor Gatto testifies, the widespread understanding among the young is that writing isn’t about them (and their interests, curiosities and futures), but exclusively about the wishes of other people. Writing pedagogy is, at present, built around the self-interest of others and this, in our view, is wrong.

To diminish the potential for individual meaningfulness in students’ work is a denial of their basic humanity – Willinsky (1990)

Why There Shouldn’t Be A Difference.

In his review of 100 years of literacy research, Hillocks (2011) forcefully stated, “We know from a very wide variety of studies in English and out of it, that students who are authentically engaged with the tasks of their learning are likely to learn much more than those who are not” (p. 189).

Children generally start out their lives enjoying mark making and writing until they become discouraged or disinterested. This only begins to happen when children are restricted by  classroom pedagogies which inhibit children’s free and natural expression. The current state of writing pedagogy causes children to write about things they do not know a lot about and have no natural experience of – all of a sudden, writing is made even harder than it needs to be. Children also quickly become aware that their writing will not have a readership beyond their teacher; has no purpose, achieves nothing and will often live forever within the dark pages of their literacy book. Beyond this, children are made to become self-conscious of error at the earliest stages of the writing process which makes them less likely to take risks and makes their writing tentative and dull. Their risk taking diminishes alongside their enthusiasm and children eventually feel like they no longer want to ‘perform’ – because of a perceived inability to achieve certain external and often arbitrary standards.

To not affirm and respect student voices is both morally wrong, because it disparages who students are and what they know, and strategically a mistake, because students will resist becoming active partners in teaching and learning. – Lensmire (2000)

The Good News

The good news is that change is not only possible but it is continuously happening. We need to help increase children’s consciousness of language . It needs to be this, rather than just experiencing it externally or ‘playing’ at it. 

To want to write, a child must simply see writing done and see what writing can do. How much writing do most children see being done at school is also a potential issue flagged up by research projects – a topic we discuss here.

The question is why does the writing activity children engage in seem so far removed from the real intentions of writing? This is the question LiteracyForPleasure has tried to answer in our pedagogical approach to writing, which we are calling Real World Literacy. To read more about this new approach please click here. 

Real-World Literacy argues that children engage in language awareness. That children should be conscious of the different genres which can bring about change and how to use grammar functionally to achieve their social goals effectively. The main reason for this choice of focus is of course due to its current relevance, given the major changes in educational policy and practice as outlined in the first paragraph. This of course doesn’t go far enough.  We should provide children with the freedom to write about subjects which matter to them whilst also raising their consciousness of how they can share it effectively. These two concepts are dialectically related.  

Real-World Literacy develops a child’s critical consciousness of their environment and their critical self-consciousness, and their capacity to contribute to the shaping and reshaping of the social world. We advocate for pupil choice as opposed to writing-task assignments because the latter plays little part in presenting children with any element of their humanly produced and humanly changeable social environment. Currently, children will instead grow up feeling part of an environment over which they have no control or say.

The point of language education is not awareness for its own sake, but awareness as a necessary accompaniment to the development of the capabilities of children as producers and interpreters of writing. We hope to give children the tools that will allow them to challenge, break through and ultimately transform the dominant orders of writing – not simply copy them or imitate them from/for the teacher.

Children’s experiences + the teaching of language awareness & providing opportunity for purposeful writing production = language capability potential.

Developing children’s language potential depends on the partnering of language awareness and practice through purposeful writing. Purposeful writing comes if we provide children with ‘language awareness’ in which they can build on their experiences. Language awareness includes the teaching of the writing process, functional grammar activity, genre study and genuine publication to the outside community.

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Go here to read more about Real World Literacy.

Finally, if you are interested in the research which underpins our advocacy for authentic topic choice you may want to peruse our references below:


  • Bernstein, B. (1996) Pedagogy, Symbolic Control and Identity, London, Taylor and Francis.
  • Canagarajah, S. (2004) ‘Subversive identities, pedagogical safe houses and critical learning’ in Norton, B. and Toohey, K. (eds) Critical Pedagogies and Language Learning, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
  • Cremin, T., (2011) Writing Voices: Creating Communities Of Writers London: Routledge
  • Flint, A. S., & Laman, T. T. (2012). Where Poems Hide: Finding Reflective, Critical Spaces Inside Writing Workshop In Theory Into Practice, 51(1), 12-19
  • Gee, J. P. (2008) A sociocultural perspective on opportunity to learn In P. Moss, D. Pulin, J. P. Gee, E. Haertel and L. Young (eds) Assessment, Equity, and Opportunity to Learn (pp.76-108) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
  • Gonzalez, N., Moll, L. & Amanti, C. (eds) (2005) Funds of Knowledge: Theorizing Practices in Households, Communities, and Classroom, Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum
  • Graham, S., Berninger, V., & Fan, W. (2007). The structural relationship between writing attitude and writing achievement in first and third grade students In Contemporary Educational Psychology, 32(3), 516-536
  • Gregory, E., Arju, T., Jessel, J., Kenner, C. and Ruby, M. (2007) ‘Snow White in different guises: interlingual and intercultural exchanges between grandparents and young children at home in East London’,Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, vol. 7, no. 5, pp. 5–25.
  • Guerra, J. C. (2008). Cultivating transcultural citizenship: A writing across communities model In Language Arts, 85(4), 296–304.
  • Gutiérrez, K. (2008) ‘Developing a sociocritical literacy in the Third Space’, Reading Research Quarterly, vol. 43, no. 2, pp. 148–64.
  • Lave, J. and Wenger, E. (1991) Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
  • Maybin. J. (2006) Children’s Voices: Talk, Knowledge & Identity London: Palgrave
  • Rogoff, B., Moore, L., Najafi, B., Dexter, A., Correa-Chavez, M. and Solis, J. (2007) Children’s development of cultural repertoires through participation in everyday routines and practices In J. E. Grusec and P. D. Hastings (eds) Handbook of Socialization: Theory & Research (pp.490-515) New York: Guildford Press
  • Tomasello, M. (2003) Constructing a Language: A usage-based Theory of Language Acquisition Cambridge: Harvard University Press
  • Tomasello, M. (2006) Acquiring linguistic constructions In R.S Siegler & D. Kuhn (eds), Handbook of Child Psychology: Cognitive Development (pp. 255-298) New York: Wiley
  • Willinksy, J., (1990) New Literacy: Redefining Reading and Writing in Schools London: Routledge

Talk-For-Writing Is Excellent But Does It Go Far Enough?

We are convinced that Talk-For-Writing is one of the best ways to teach children how to write in different genres. Like many of you, we had considerable success. However, we were aware that, no matter how independent the independent phase of Talk-For-Writing was, it still had a certain feeling of ‘writing exercise’ about it. For us, it didn’t feel like Talk-For-Writing went far enough, in the sense that children were often not being given the opportunity to go on to use these newly acquired genres in writing about what they personally know, love and care about. They don’t get to use the genre for their purposes and after all, this is what writing is all about. As the psycholinguist Frank Smith says, ‘the environment in which a child will want to write is an environment of demonstrations, not just of ‘this is the way we do things’ but also ‘these are things that can be done’. As a result, Talk-For-Writing is just the beginning of any writing topic and our Real-Word Literacy pedagogy goes well beyond it.

Talk For Writing: The Precursor To Process Writing

Talk For Writing is an approach to language and literacy learning developed by Pie Corbett and Julia Strong, described in detail in their book Talk For Writing Across The Curriculum (2011). It is concerned with children’s composing and writing of non-fiction texts and demonstrates how focused talking and oral activities together with shared planning and writing can help children internalise the linguistic structures and patterns necessary for the successful writing of such texts.

An intensely practical approach, it is nevertheless based on a sound and influential body of research, notably the work of Halliday (1975) in formulating a model of language in social context within the discipline he termed Systemic Functional Linguistics, and on the subsequent work of Martin (2007) who developed a pedagogical approach to literacy learning informed by genre theory. Martin (2007) asserted that a focus on literary genre would reveal the contexts which influence texts, and that these, if taught, would enable students to write culturally informed texts and thus have entry to a society’s particular cultural norms.

The Talk For Writing (2011) project makes an equally strong claim for the inclusion of all children in the learning and development of writing and what this means in terms of their place in society. The teaching sequences are essentially interactive and encourage collaboration between teacher and students and between students and their peers, wherein the students accomplish a piece of writing that is more successful than one they would produce on their own. The teacher’s role is to draw out, model and scaffold. Ongoing formative assessment is seen as central to pupil progress, with feedback to pupils at every stage both offering and eliciting from them sensitive suggestions for improvement, involving them in their own learning and raising their expectations of what they can achieve.

Martin (2007) expands on the genre-based model of literacy learning. He posits a three-stage pedagogical process in relation to a text: deconstruction, joint construction and individual construction. The interactive element is exemplified and stressed in his description of the process. In Talk For Writing the stages are referred to as Imitation, Innovation and Independent. Literacy For Pleasure’s Writing approach (read here) proposes that teachers treat the introduction of any new genre, which includes using language to produce or consume texts, as a matter best served by Talk-For-Writing and these three elements.

It is envisaged that, by systematically building on children’s knowledge of genres over the years of primary schooling, the linguistic features shaping each genre will be embedded in the children’s repertoire and can be employed both across the curriculum and beyond the school gates. However this doesn’t always seem to be the case.

What Should Come After Talk For Writing?

Writing assignments in a traditional curriculum often require explicit replication or transference of what the teacher has taught. Thus, something like the independent stage would be the end of a writing activity. We believe, however, that Talk-For-Writing’s independent stage is only the beginning. What Talk-For-Writing does so well is attend to the ‘vertical’ forms of learning. Children move from immaturity and inexperience to maturity and competence. However, we have a more expansive view of development and our approach is also concerned with the horizontal forms of learning, that of expanding children’s real-world, outside literacies. We believe that Real-Word Literacy captures both vertical and horizontal forms of expertise. It includes not only what students learn in formal learning environments but also what they learn by participating in a range of activities outside of school. After Talk-For-Writing, children should develop from it and use it as a guide in subsequent writing.

The rationale for the instructional routines within Talk-For-Writing is that they allow for a gradual release of responsibility from teacher to child (Higgins, Miller & Wegemann, 2006). Our approach, Real-Word Literacy, also allows for this. Children apply the linguistic features learned in Talk-For-Writing to the topics and themes they actually want to write about.

Currently, even in the independent phase, children are rarely, if ever, given an opportunity to follow their own ‘writing desires’ through the newly learnt genre. (This is either an issue of T4W not being clear or teachers simply not having trust in the children) The topic is nearly always in the control of the teacher and therefore just becomes another ‘writing exercise’. T4W states that only the highest-ability should be allowed to negotiate their very own writing-topic through the genre. We believe this to be mistaken. Why should the lowest ability regularly have to negotiate a teacher-chosen-topic of which they often have a very limited knowledge when compared with being an absolute expert in their own interests and experiences? This tackling of a subject not known well to the child actually makes the writing process even harder than it needs to be.

This kind of writing is more authentic because it is not simply a response to an assignment or exercise set by the teacher (a piece of literature, a film-clip or the class topic). Unfortunately, drills and exercises teach children that writing is a nonsensical activity. The language of their exercises will often be purposeless, decontextualised and trivial when compared to their lived experiences or their ‘social dreaming‘. Children begin to believe that the only evident reason for writing is to get it over with, to get it marked or because the teacher says so and that their experiences or ideas are not worthy of writing. To move away from this is a profound shift.

The transition to a Real-Word Literacy means children can constructively critique a genre, account for its cultural purpose, know and apply the grammar involved, creatively extend the genre, and go on to innovate writing on their own to serve real purposes. Through this approach, children can begin to understand how writing can help them steer their own social and academic future.

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Meeting Children Where They Are: Using Pupil Conferencing.

This article is based on, and written in relation to, findings of educational research (see end of article). The tenor of this article is simply to allow the reader to reflect on these findings and is in no way a criticism of any school(s) policy or teachers’ practice.

Why Written Feedback Might Not Be As Effective As Verbal Conferencing

Traditionally, the teaching of writing has been a thankless task. For the writing teacher, it has meant long, long hours of marking and commenting on student compositions, with little reason for confidence that this effort would have any positive effect.” – Bereiter & Scardmalia

As Frank Smith (1982, p.203) states: writing is not learned in steps. There is no ladder of separate and incremental skills that if written down for a child they will automatically apply and so ascend. Writing develops as an individual develops, in many directions, continually, usually inconspicuously, but occasionally in dramatic and unforeseeable spurts. And like individual human development, writing requires nourishment and encouragement rather than a rushed scribbled jointing on a pupil’s writing piece.

Research (Fisher, 2010, Jean, Tree, & Clark, 2013, Oxford University – Education Endowment Fund, 2016 ) seems to indicate that swathes of ‘after-the-event’ written feedback is neither efficient nor effective. As Dylan Wiliam says, feedback like this is often the equivalent of telling an unsuccessful comedian that they need to be funnier. So how are teachers meant to provide meaningful and accountable feedback to their pupils despite the pressures of ‘after-the-event’ written feedback?

Time To Consider Pupil Conference?

There appears to be effective ways and it could be through teacher collaboration amongst students. As Corbett & Strong (2011) , Smith (1986), Atwell (2015), and Graves (2003) testify, a way to improve children’s writing outcomes is to write with children and not just sharing the product of your own writing but actually joining the children whilst they are engaged in the process of writing. Help them, by advising them on their compositions in real time.

Unfortunately, most children or adults have never actually seen a professional writer writing. They can be afflicted by the misconception that writing springs fully formed from an author’s head. They are unaware of the drafts, the blocks, and the alternating frustration and exhilaration. Without allowing children to be in dialogue, in actual collaboration with a writer, in real time, they will find it difficult to learn about these essential tools of the trade. As Frank Smith states (1986, p.199):

‘A lecture or a set of exercises are not an alternative to an apprenticeship. Collaboration empowers students; instruction leaves them dependent.’

Through pupil-conferencing you will be providing, on a daily basis, high quality teaching to individual students. You will be conducting not only assessment for learning but also assessment of learning. You must be a trusted adult in the eyes of your pupils. Children need to feel secure in a teacher’s presence and assume that they will be interested in their writing, responding  in the first place to what has been written and not to how it has been written. According to Tompkins, (2011 p.13) when teachers act only as judges, children produce writing mainly to satisfy the teacher’s requirements, and the writing is nearly always tentative.

The benefits of a conferencing approach however is that it can awaken you to the critical role of what John Gatto (2008, p.177) calls ‘feedback loops’. These loops between teacher and pupil create, what Gatto calls, a ‘customised circuit’ which promotes in children self-correction and self-development rather than feeling a slavish kind of need to follow the direction of a teacher’s responses. High quality composition, revision and editing comes when a child and a helpful adult work together on something the child is interested in producing – when the advantages are immediately apparent. Verbal feedback has maximum relevance to the child because the child, in effect, determines what is to be taught and what learning opportunities they require.

You literally can’t help but teach something – children can’t help but learn and apply something.

It’s important to note here that Pupil-Conferencing is only as small part of what LiteracyForPleasure’s writing approach consists of. Research indicates (Writing Is Primary, 2009), the most direct and relevant way for a teacher to demonstrate to a child the power of writing is to write with the child, not by requiring the child to engage in writing that you, the teacher, determines the child must do, but by helping to bring out of the child writing that the child would like to do.

Consider and reflect that when children are required to write something they are not interested in they will also not be overly interested in any feedback and in any corrections that ensue. As a result, will they learn as effectively? However, our pedagogy, which we are calling Real-World Literacy, does seem to support such an approach. The different aspects of a productive writing environment cannot be separated from each other and delivered to children one bit at a time. Reading, writing, talking and writing, and talking in order to write must surely be continual possibilities? They do overlap and interlock – so this would make sense and research does seem to back this up. Therefore, at present, this is what our approach advocates for. It can be read about in more detail – here. Alternatively, you can receive email updates from our blog by clicking the follow button in the top right hand corner of this page.

How To Conduct Conferences

Circulating the room – It is important to remember that an informal conference with a child need only be 40 seconds long, although it will take longer until the time when both you and the children are familiar with the idea. You should aim to see every writer at least twice a week, which, in experience, is quite manageable – even without the aid of a TA. Ask how the writing is going. Alternatively, ask the child what they feel they need particular help with. Do they have any ‘sticky’ places in the text? Finally, you should formulate a question or suggestion for the author, particularly if you sense that they lack confidence about their topic.

Ask how it is going -> Hear some of what is contained in the piece -> Formulate a question or a suggestion for the author. -> Leave.

A good technique is to play the naïve reader/listener and parrot back what you have learned from listening to an extract or skim reading the text. This shows your writer that, at this point, you are interested in the topic of their piece and not the transcription. When teachers point out mechanical errors during the drafting stage, they send a false message that mechanical correctness is more important than content (Tompkins, 2011, p.18). Your comments on transcription can wait until a ‘Revision Conference’.

All writers, no matter what their age, need to hear their own words coming back to them. Often, when you repeat back what you have learnt from their piece, children go on to give you more information verbally in response. This often finds it way into their writing. However, it’s important to realise you are not there to read the whole piece. Always be early in seeking out the children who seem lacking in confidence. Once children understand what a conference is, they may let you know that they do not require one at the present moment; in this case you simply move on to the next child.  

Things to remember: Don’t talk more than the writer. Don’t try to redirect the child onto something you find more interesting. Only direct the child onto a different course or subject if it’s clearly not working. Don’t ignore the writer’s original intention for the piece. Try not to supply words or phrases that you like, but if possible quietly guide the writer towards the means of expression.Don’t hesitate to say to a child that you don’t understand or that you’re confused by the subject choice. When you’ve finished a conference, simply mark the child’s book with ‘verbal feedback’.

Learning To Conference: Conferencing Prompt Cards

You may find these cards helpful when starting out on providing pupil conferences, or as an aid to classroom assistants or parent helpers participating in the process.

Revision Conferences

The purpose of revision is to find a significant meaning and make it clear – Donald Murray (2002, p.175).

Children soon come to know that you will talk with them while they are writing. It is a well-known fact that ‘after the event’ responses written in books come too late for children to do anything about them. Verbally conducted revision conferences, on the other hand, provide more opportunity for high quality teaching, alongside the child, in real time, and allow the child to act on the feedback immediately.

How To Prepare Feedback Ready For Revision Conferences

After school, in preparation for next day’s revision conferences, good writing teachers will step back from a child’s piece and look at the entire draft to see what it could become. They do not rush in and simply edit line by line. In fact it is the child who edits the piece. Teachers consider the content, the structure, the pace and the form of the piece.

These are the sorts of questions to be considered when receiving a child’s draft:

  • What is the subject?
  • What is the focus?
  • What is the best genre for them to explore their subject?
  • Where is the theme that will carry the reader through the piece?
  • Is it too general? Does the child need something specific to focus on?
  • Is it it too long or too short?
  • Where does the child achieve the most clear, consistent and appropriate writing?

After considering these points, simply write very brief notes at the bottom of their page (including any transcriptional problems), ready to share during the child’s  revision conference the next day. Take notes on what the child has done well and identify only one or two teaching points for discuss. Undertaking a revision conference requires skill on the part of the teacher, but this skill will come with practice. It should be noted that these conferences do take longer and you can only really fit up to three into a typical literacy hour, once you have completed your short conferencing commitments. 

Once a child has had their conference, they make the revisions and edits on the piece until they are ready to write a final copy. Remember, if it is a particularly strong piece, the child should seriously consider having it published into the class/school book stock.

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**Please note that the views expressed on this blog are informed by research and may not represent our employer.**

Pupil Conferencing: The Research

Research References

  • Alexander, R. (2008) ‘Talking, teaching, learning’ in Alexander, R. Essays on Pedagogy, Abingdon, Routledge.
  • Alexander, R. (2008). Towards dialogic teaching. (4th ed). Cambridge: Dialogos.
  • Bereiter, C., Scardamalia, M. In Beard, R., (1993) Teaching Literacy Balancing Perspectives Hodder & Stoughton: London
  • Clark, J. (2010). Why talking in the classroom can be a good thing? In Literacy Today 63: 15 http://0-web.ebscohost.com.brum.beds.ac.uk/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?hid=107&sid=58116dfe-acf0-4bee-a203-199849af2570%40sessionmgr111&vid=3 (accessed May 2016).
  • Maybin, J. (2006) Children’s Voices: Talk, Knowledge and Identity, Basingstoke, Palgrave MacMillan.
  • Mercer, N. and Littleton, K. (2007) Dialogue and the Development of Children’s Thinking: A Sociocultural Approach London:Routledge
  • Myhill, D., (2006). Talk, talk, talk: Teaching and learning in whole class discourse In Research Papers in Education 21, no. 1: 19–41.
  • Nguyen, H. (2007) Rapport building in language instruction: A microanalysis of the multiple resources in teacher talk In Language and Education 21: 284-303
  • Norton, B. (2000) ‘Claiming the right to speak in classrooms and communities’ in Identity And Language Learning: Gender, Ethnicity And Educational Change, London, Pearson Education.
  • Nystrand, M., (2006) Research on the role of classroom discourse as it affects reading comprehension In Research in the Teaching of English 40: 392-412
  • Wenger, E., (1998) Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
  • Wertsch, J. V. (1994) The primacy of mediated action in sociocultural studies In Mind, Culture & Activity, 1: 202-208

In Teaching Writing – How Important Is It That Teachers Be Writers Too?

In drafting for this blog post I wrote down the following bullet points:

  • Do and should teachers write and share their own exemplars of texts they expect children to go on and write?
  • Do teachers take part in the writing process when they write; if so, do they share their process with their children? For example do they show children pages from their notebook? Their plans, their drafts, their revisions, their edits and their final publications?
  • Do teachers share hints and tips from their own writing process with children?

‘The main requirements are easily stated. We, as teachers, must provide an environment in which a child will want to write and in which a child can learn about writing. The environment in which a child will want to write is an environment of demonstrations, not just of ‘this is the way we do things’ but also ‘there are things that can be done.’ (Frank Smith, 1982, p.201)

I think it is important that teachers try to write in certain genres for themselves; particularly the ones they are asking children to write in. Children – like adults – read stories, poems, information differently when they see these texts as things they themselves could produce. This not only helps the teacher understand the writing they are asking the children to do – and so provide them with real advice but it also helps children view their teacher as a real author, with real experience. So:

  • Show children finished writing in the genre you are asking them to write in. Sometimes also share your plans and drafts.
  • Share with them how you followed the typical features in a genre.
  • Show them some of your writing tricks.
  • Share with children some texts that aren’t quite working out for you – seek their advice.
  • Regularly and systematically provide opportunity for children to talk to you about their writing in pupil-conferencing. Talk about their writing in real-time as opposed to leaving it to ‘after-the-event’ written feedback – which often comes too late for children to act on the advice given.
  • When giving writing conferences to children – you will talk to them and advise them like a real writer – because you will have been there yourself when you wrote your piece.

For children to see themselves as writers, they need to collaborate with someone who is more experienced than them to learn from.

Children tend not to write well if they are not interested or see themselves as writers. That is why it is our responsibility, as teachers, to demonstrate to children that writing is interesting, possible, achieves something and is worthwhile. There is no way of helping children if the teacher themselves is a fraud – who doesn’t believe writing is interesting, possible, achieves something or worthwhile.

As Frank Smith (1988) puts it: ‘Teachers who are not themselves members of the club cannot admit children to it’.

Teachers must read like writers, they must collaborate with their children who are willingly engaged in the enterprise of writing. For most teachers this should be easy – write with their own students and offer them writing conferences whilst they are writing. Share your own expertise. When I write poetry with children, I begin to read poetry differently. I’m reading like a member of the club of poets. And if we can make children feel like they are members of the club too, they can learn this too.

A Functional Grammar Table: CPD Subject Knowledge With A Difference

LiteracyForPleasure’s writing approachBefore we start, it is important to point out that Functional Grammar makes up only a small part of LiteracyForPleasure’s writing approach, To read more about this approach we are calling Real-World Literacy please go here. Alternatively, you can receive email updates from our blog by clicking the follow button in the top right hand corner of this page.

Functional Grammar?

It would do children and teachers the world of good if they shifted their understanding of grammar and punctuation away from ‘rules to be followed’ to one that looked at its function. What can grammar and punctuation do for us as writers and what does it already do for the texts our favourite authors write?

If children can spot grammar and punctuation in real texts written by real authors and if they can be given opportunity to use these ‘writing secrets’ in their real writing, they will not only produce better texts but they will be skilled in the exercise of name-and-identify which is so popular (for some reason) in grammar tests.

It is possible to create pupils who can be their own critics and also be interested and motivated in trying to make their writing as clear and creative as possible for their readers.

We made the Functional-Grammar-Table below because we were fed up with texts which told you the rules of a piece of grammar but didn’t tell children (or indeed adults) why and where you might want to use it and the effect grammar can have on your writing. We were also fed up with the concept of ‘grammar deficit’. This is the teaching practice of continually passing judgement on rule errors in grammar-exercises as opposed to talking critically about what value grammar can have on writing or the effect of its absence has on the effectiveness of a piece. This realisation has transformed our practice. We explain how we now approach grammar teaching below:

Teaching Grammar Through Daily ‘Writing Tricks’ Minilessons

What lessons will have a practical, lasting, positive influence on student writing? – Nancie Atwell

In many classes, minilessons precede daily writing lessons. Whether you’re teaching a grammar, writing-craft or genre study-point,  it is useful to follow Tompkins’ (2011, p.53) stages:

  1. Introduce the topic and its functional purpose ->
  2. Share examples ->
  3. Provide information ->
  4. Guided practice ->
  5. Assess learning.

Introduce the topic and functional purpose This can be anything from a writing strategy or skill, grammar function or a literary genre concept. Always share the purpose and the function with the class, before moving on to formalities or rules.

  • Share examples Look at examples from children’s or author’s real writing.
  • Provide information Provide information about the topic and how it can be used in ‘real’ writing. Clarify misconceptions and contrast a good and a poor example to see how the writing is affected.
  • Guided practice Children work individually or in pairs to practice what they are learning. Ideally, this will be in the context of an authentic piece of writing a child is currently working on (See our Real-World-Literacy approach for more details on how to do this).
  • Assess learning Teachers ask children to consider how they can use this linguistic feature as they write. They can also reflect on their authentic use of it by leaving a comment in their book.

The Importance Of Giving ‘Writing Tricks’

Whatever you choose to do in these minilessons you should ensure that you teach in context and in a way that will empower children’s writing intentions. Calkins (1998, p.198) suggests that to successfully apply this attitude is to perceive minilessons as ‘quick tip’ giving before Process Writing begins. This changes your perception of these lessons, stops them turning into exercises and instead creates a climate where children feel instructed in and taught something valuable.

So What Actually Is A ‘Functional’ Grammar Lesson And Why Teach In That Way?

These mini-sessions are essential for showing children the hows of writing. The main premise is that the use of punctuation and grammar is a skill to be developed, not content to be taught.

Graham & Perin’s (2007) highly reliable meta-analysis into effective teaching of writing makes it clear that the formal teaching of grammar has always negatively impacted on children’s writing. Functional grammar teaching, on the other hand, shows children how understanding what words and structures ‘do’ – helps them achieve their meaning and intentions in their real writing.

Fearn & Farnan (2007, p.77) suggest teaching grammar in this order:

  • Teach the purpose of the grammar and share its meaning potential with your writers.
  • Follow this up by allowing them to apply it in their real writing.
  • Finally, ensure that children can formally ‘define-and-identify’ it out of context.

Fearn & Farnan (2007) make clear that this is not only the key to good writing, but teaching in this way results in a deeper understanding of grammar for formal testing. This approach is also fully supported by the DfE (2012) in their own research on effective teaching of grammar.

Please see the bottom of this post for our Functional Grammar Table. This table is designed with teachers in mind. It differs from many other grammar tables in that its major purpose is to inform teachers of the function different grammatical items have in writing. It is written in a way that should make these functions easily understood and applied by children.

A useful technique we advocate for is discussion of a prepared text which does achieve its intentions as a result of good grammar use – or sometimes doesn’t. The act of reading requires understanding how writers use grammar to enhance meaning. Children will learn that if they ignore grammatical conventions, readers will not understand their text. Therefore, you should still encourage a culture of speculation about grammar use. This not only makes the sessions more interesting but also allows children to think more deeply and thus gain an authentic understanding of grammar. With all minilessons, whether it be grammar, writing or genre study, you should avoid using worksheets and instead have the children apply their newly acquired learning in their own authentic writing.

Wide reading has a strong impact on personal writing. Explore and promote high-quality children’s literature to understand the grammatical and stylistic choices other writers make.

This approach to minilessons is one part of a much larger approach being devised by ‘Literacyforpleasure’. For more information on our approach to teaching writing, please go here.

DOWNLOAD our Functional Grammar Table here.

functional grammar table

Interesting Reading Here:



Why Children Should Be Encouraged To Only Ever Use Phonics As A Helpful Friend.

A Teacher’s Philosophy

I should start out by stating quite clearly that this is not an article advocating for the removal of phonics from classrooms. A teacher’s approach to the task of reading, however, is guided by what they think reading actually is. If armed with a viable definition of reading and an understanding of some of the instructional implications of the definition, teachers can use almost any reading materials to help children develop productive reading strategies. The teacher is the key.

According to Weaver, (2009, p.15) the following is a good perspective of what reading could be:

Learning to read means learning to bring meaning to a text in order to get meaning from it.’

This has meaning at its heart. It involves the use of all three language cue systems which are discussed and referenced in detail later. Namely: syntactic, semantic and grapho/phonemic.

However, you only need to read the news, walk into any classroom or peruse the children’s book shelves in your local book shop to know that phonics is currently king. Unfortunately, phonics is only further authenticated by high-stakes testing and governmental learning objectives (Davis, 2014).

Vygotsky (1978) stated that ‘children “grow into the intellectual environment around them.” In becoming literate, children acquire a set of cultural practices, values, and beliefs, within which they construct an identity.

Let’s consider what evidence young children must gather from their classrooms to inform what they believe reading to be. They will observe isolated letters of the alphabet, fragmented words, and a few bits of sentences, none of which seem to serve any purpose. Letters and words are festooned all over classroom walls, mostly in the form of lists.They may also find a few things called stories in some of the classrooms, but most of these will be short and dull, and almost invariably accompanied by lists of questions designed to make a test out of the book. Every child is an unprejudiced explorer. Children learn from the artefacts they find in their environment and from the behaviour of the people around them. What must young readers be currently concluding reading to be?

Children are fast becoming to believe that to learn to read is to identify and pronounce words correctly. This is because in school they have learnt that correct word pronunciation is what reading is. However, one hopes that, if reading for pleasure, at home, the child may read for meaning. Whether a teacher is aware of it or not, Weaver (2009, p.15) believes it is perfectly reasonable to assume that teachers who focus intensely on a phonetic strategy for reading are leading children to believe that the following definition of reading is true, that:

Learning to read means learning to pronounce words.’

I think we can all agree that reading would be both inefficient and ineffective if this statement was true; if we only ever relied on grapho/phonemic cues. It also implies that 100% word identification is necessary in order to get meaning, which is ordinarily not so. It also doesn’t take into account what readers bring to a text. It also assumes that they can only ever read what they have been taught. Finally, it erroneously implies that meaning resides in the text alone. It implies that readers are passive and that reading is entirely a one-way process. The impact of this, of course, is that some children are learning that reading is a ‘school activity’, punitive, pointless and boring, not to be engaged in unless teachers require it. Much phonic instruction then is irrelevant and misleading to children. Watch this video to see exactly what I mean.

The Problems With Extreme Phonics Advocacy

Most proponents of a phonics based approach emphasise decoding rather than comprehension. They will argue that this is not the case, however research (Dockrell et al, 2015) indicates  otherwise – of all the reading activities that could currently occur in the classroom, the only one that is done daily is ‘sounding out phonemes‘. Not reading; not the discussion of books.

Extreme phonic advocates seem to think that once words are identified, meaning will take care of itself. You can understand why some people believe the emphasis on phonics to be logical. Language is oral and writing is a graphic representation of language. Is reading then the act of turning writing into its oral counterpart? If letters and letter combinations (graphemes) simply represent spoken sounds, (phonemes) we simply need to teach a child to pronounce the word and they will be readers. If you teach a child what each letter stands for – they can read. They will then be able to immediately go on to the works of Shakespeare and War & Peace without any problems.


For example, you are likely to be a fluent reader who knows all their grapheme / phonemes combinations. As a result, according to a phonics fundamentalist, you should be able to read the following passage:

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

Professor Butler’s first-prize sentence appears in “Further Reflections on the Conversations of Our Time,” an article in the scholarly journal Diacritics (1997)

I’m sure after reading this passage you’d be unable to provide an adequate summary; not because you couldn’t read the passage correctly but because you couldn’t place the text in a context that made sense to you. This is the same for children who develop only a phonetic philosophy to reading. Sure, they read the passage accurately, but they will recall relatively little. This is because:

  1. Within about half a second or less, children begin to forget some of the details of a sentence.  (Weaver, p.133, 2009)
  2. In isolation, most words do not have a single meaning but rather a range of possible meanings – thus phonics will only be of limited use to the reader.
  3. Words take on specific meanings as they transact with one another on the page together – thus phonics will certainly not help in this transaction and indeed due to its time consuming nature, can damage this process.
  4. Meaning is not in the text or words themselves but in the reader’s interpretations – phonics makes no contribution to this.
  5. Readers make sense of texts by bringing to bear their life experiences, knowledge and feelings – phonics plays no part in this.
  6. Meaning emerges as a child engages with a whole text in context. – phonics can only ever be a helpful friend to this process.

Single Words – Multiple Meanings

Take the simple word ‘run’. According to phonics-based philosophy of reading, once you can decode and pronounce the word, meaning should take care of itself. Consider what you think the word run is to mean and then read the following examples and see if your meaning works in the context of the whole sentence:

  1. Can you run the shop for an hour?
  2. Can you run the printing press?
  3. Can you do the run for charity?
  4. Can you run in the next election?
  5. Can you help with the school run?
  6. They’ll print 500 copies in the first
  7. Jenny has a run in her tights.
  8. There was a run on BBQs this weekend.
  9. It had a long run at the theatre.

Now, the question is, in these and other sentences, how can a young phonetic-based reader know what run means? They are at a disadvantage. I’m sure the strategy of decoding and word recognition was not all that was required for you to take the full meaning from the sentences. It is clear then that we do not simply add together the meanings of individual words in a sentence to get the meaning of the whole. This is because we cannot know what a word means until we see it in context as a whole. Thus many phonic activities fail children in their pursuit of reading for meaning because they are not engaging in whole text, but rather, making individual sounds or sounding out individual words in isolation. This leaves children at a serious disadvantage when they approach real texts. Take for example these examples:

  1. Get Sally to chair the meeting.
  2. Separate the white from the yolk
  3. That was a close call

Also, there are many words we do not know how to pronounce until we know something about their meaning: wound, lead and tears.

Though these examples provide a common sense view that decoding does not take care of meaning in reading, phonics is still the primary method of word identification instead of one of several cue systems that a young reader has available to them. Therefore it’s incorrect and unethical for teachers and children to believe that reading comes down to the following:

printed symbol = a spoken symbol =meaning.

Phonic Rules Aren’t Rules

As the primary means for identifying unfamiliar words, phonics has certain unavoidable and unquestionable limitations. This has recently been exposed by The British Educational Research Association (2016) where they state:

‘Children actually have to rely on their vocabulary knowledge to know how a word sounds, rather than only following phonic rules. Schools are wasting time on teaching [phonic rules] which are of little use to children in reading for real.’.

Additionally, phonic rules and application of them are difficult for many children to understand (Artley, 1977, Weaver, 2009). An early children’s text can have anything up to 21 regular consonants, 25 consonant blends and 13 silent consonants. As for vowels, you have single vowels, diagraphs, blends, plus rules which apply to multi-syllabic words. This is a massive load.

The fact is, even if this kind of content can be taught, and as The British Educational Research Association acknowledge, the sound-symbol relationships in English are not sufficiently consistent to make it possible to use phonic generalisations with any degree of regularity.

Note, just as two common examples: the ea diagraph in – break, bread, near and beach. Not to mention the ng in – longer, singer, finger and ranger.

Another example is ‘paws’, which phonetically could produce something that also fits, pause, pours and pores. So if ‘paws’ is encountered out of context, you cannot identify the sound with a real word unless you already recognise the word ‘paws,’ in the context of the text, however children fed on a phonics based diet are at a disadvantage when bringing context of this kind to their reading (Davis, 2014).

If you are beginning to think that spelling/sound correspondences are very complicated, you are absolutely right. There are just too many exceptions. Just look at this small selection of examples:

Rule Idea Words Conforming From Common Word Lists Exceptions
When there are two vowels side by side, the long sound of the first one is heard and the second is usually silent. 309 (bead) 377 (chief)
When a vowel is in the middle of a one-syllable word, the vowel is short. 408 249
When there are two vowels, one of which is final e, the first vowel is long and this e is silent 180 (bone) 108 (done)
The first vowel is usually long and the second silent in the diagraphs ai, ea, oa, ui 179 (nail) 92 (said)
In the phonogram ie the I is silent and the e has a long sound 8 (field) 39 (friend)
When words end with silent e, the preceeding a or i is long. 164 (cake) 108 (have)
When a follows w in a word, it usually has the sound a as in was. 15 (watch) 32 (swam)
The two letters ow make the long o sound 50 (own) 35 (down)
W is sometimes a vowel and follows the vowel diagraph rule 50 (crow) 75 (threw)
When y is used as a vowel in words, it sometimes has the sound of long i. 29 (fly) 170 (funny)
One vowel letter in an accented syllable has its short sound 547 (city) 356 (lady)
If the first vowel sound in a word is followed by a single consonant, that consonant usually begins the second syllable. 190 (over) 237 (oven)
When a word has only one vowel letter, the vowel sound is likely to be short 433 (hid) 322 (kind)

This is just a small sample. For the full list see here. Here we can see how even children’s common words lists regularly don’t follow phonetic rules consistently enough to be useful, and so, according to Tovery, giving children phonics as their go-to reading strategy leaves them at an incredible disadvantage.

The instruction required for children to deal constantly with these often abstract rules simply does not warrant the time and effort often expended. This time might be better spent actually reading.’ (Tovery, 1980, p.437)

According to the CLPE (2000) and Stubbs (1980), it takes children longer to learn to read in English than it takes them to learn to read in other European languages because of this lack of regular and predictable system.

Phonics Is Damaging Reading-For-Pleasure & Life-Long Reading

Reading makes you good at phonics, rather than phonics making you good at reading. (Frank Smith, 1988, p.14)      

We have to also consider the damage that phonics instruction is causing. We are seeing a decline in life-long reading by children (The National Endowment Of The Arts, 2007, DfE, 2012, UKLA, 2012Egmont, 2013, Armistead, 2015, The Reading Agency, 2015) and the eroding away of time in which children could be reading for pleasure at school (NUT, 2016). Unfortunately, we are denying children satisfying experiences with books if we assume that first and foremost, reading means pronouncing words and painstakingly gauging their meaning on an individual basis. It is all too common to assume that word identification precedes comprehension; whereas in fact it is clear that comprehension is the other way around. Because we are getting the meaning of the whole, we can then grasp the meaning of the individual words. Words have meaning only as they transact with one another, within the context of a whole text, as the earlier examples have demonstrated.

Under an extreme phonics program of study, books and stories for ‘meaningful reading’ are always supplementary to the repetitive skills instruction and accompanied by questions so that the students ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ answers can be counted. Under such conditions, what is to be learned is rigorously and restrictively predetermined. You can see evidence of that in this video.

According the the world renowned & three time winner of New York ‘Teacher Of The Year’ Educationalist John Taylor Gatto:

‘To learn to read and to like it takes about thirty contact hours under the right circumstances, sometimes a few more, sometimes a few less. It’s a fairly easy skill for anyone to pick up if good reasons to do so are provided. Exhortation isn’t sufficient, however, nor intimidation…or humiliation. The only way you can stop a child from learning to read and liking it – in the densely verbal culture which surrounds us all with printed language anywhere we turn – is to teach it the way we currently teach it’. Under the current system ‘by the time a seemingly ‘slow reader’ approaches adulthood, he or she will display indifference to reading, or hatred of it, because of our methods.’ (John Taylor Gatto, Weapons Of Mass Instruction, p.152-153)

The Obsession With Vowels

It is worth noting too that most phonics instruction is based around ‘vowel rules’. Yet vowels are the least important element to be concerned with in the identification of words. It has existed in terms of shorthand in journalism, for years, and remains perfect readable. The following sentence illustrates this fact:

I gss u cn rd ths txt 🙂 wtht vwls.

Only by trying to read the text as a whole can you, or indeed children, understand the meaning of it. Not by reading each letter, word, or sometimes even whole sentences in a text.

Reading is not the process of identifying the pronunciation and meaning of individual words, which phonics instruction could wrongly lead you to believe – particularly if you’re a young child. I think the examples above prove that meaning is more than the product of word pronunciation or identification. Reading is, in fact, a complicated act of processing large pieces of information which transcends individual words.

A Brief History Of Phonics

Extreme and relentless phonics instruction, as an idea, was born out of a simplistic approach to language learning which owes its origins to Verbal Behaviour by B.F. Skinner, a behaviourist, from the early 20th Century. Behaviourists believe that all behaviour, human or animal, it does not matter, can be explained in terms of habits established when instinctive or accidental responses to environmental stimulation are ‘reinforced’ by some kind of reward. Behaviourists have no use for terms like mind, thought or feelings, which they regard as unobservable and unscientific fictions. Skinner argued that children learning to read should follow in precisely the same way that pigeons can be taught to peck at colour lights, by having appropriate responses reinforced.

However, famed and highly regarded linguist, Noam Chomsky published a scathing review of Skinner’s Verbal Behaviour. He rightly ridiculed Skinner’s belief that the laboratory study of animal behaviour could cast any light on the nature of language or on how it is learned. Language, even the language of children, is too rich, too complex, to be regarded as ‘habit-learning’. Under Skinner’s views, children are expected to progress from one meaningless chunk of learning to another. Chomsky demolished Skinner’s arguments, asserting that a behaviouristic approach to reading trivialised both language and learning. It is difficult to study meaningful learning under laboratory conditions. Chomsky’s theory turned conventional views of reading upside down and went on to influence the current theory of how children learn to read, produced by the world-renowned linguistic, Michael Halliday. Halliday currently asserts that sentences grow from entire meanings and that children should learn through the three cueing systems as articulated in this article. He believes that learning to read is a meaning exchange between the text and the reader and that a reader can use a variety of interesting cues to read successfully for meaning, this current view of learning to read is otherwise known as psycholinguistics.

Unfortunately, highly-concentrated phonic schemes represent the world turned upside down. They are based on learning that is essentially nonsensical, determined by the experiment rather than by the learner, and rely on data collected in controlled experimental conditions. (Paraphrased from Insult to Intelligence – Frank Smith) 

According to Frank Smith, children really learn to read when they are engaged in activities that naturally involve and look like reading. This is confirmed in a report commissioned by the Department for Education (DfE) in May 2014:

‘One of the key messages to emerge from the evaluation so far is that… a phonics approach to teaching reading should be used alongside other methods.’

So what are these other methods?

Innate Grammatical Knowledge & Using Experience (Schemas)

Children have difficulty in learning anything that, to them, seems to have no purpose. So meaning has to come first. The process of understanding written language starts with understanding entire stories or statements and then goes on to understanding sentences, words, and finally letters, the reverse of the way most children are taught to read through a militant phonics based system. Ironically, it is not until children get to school that they are confronted with examples of written language and with reading activities that are sheer nonsense.

Professor Roger Shuy famously conducted research into the how children learn to read, he reported:

Research shows that good language learners begin with a function, a need to get something done with language, and move gradually toward acquiring the forms which revel that function. they learn holistically, not by isolated skills. Such learners worry more about getting things done with language…they experiment freely and try things unashamedly’ (cited in Insult To Intelligence – Frank Smith p.71)

Children learn, from the earliest age, before they can even begin to talk themselves, to become unconcerned with individual spoken words but rather quickly become concerned by complete utterances, which they are not only quick to comprehend but look to reproduce in sophisticated grammatical order. For example speaking in either subject, verb, object, subject verb or verb subject order. This is called syntactic cueing and it’s interested in the typical grammatical order words often come in. Babies learn that words must fit together to make a logical construction and so even the youngest of children can bring this knowledge to reading. Indeed, Holdaway (1979) has shown that children as young as 2 1/2 can make self-corrections while they reconstruct texts, page by page, from familiar books. Soderberh’s (1971) study documents this in detail. Children can learn to read at the same age and in the same ways as they have learnt to talk, by being exposed to written language for pleasure.

This process of grammatically delimitating a word’s possible meaning is so automatic that children are often not aware of it, but it nevertheless occurs – and is made possible by grammatical schemas identified as innate by Noam Chomsky who describes it as our deep structures (1966).

Unfortunately, as is often the case under phonetic rule, there is use of only one strategy ‘sounding the word out’. By doing this, children are denied the opportunity to apply this far quicker and natural strategy to their reading. With this said however, if a child does fail to apply syntactic reasoning to a potential word then of course use of a sound-symbol can be a very helpful cue indeed!

Take for example:

The train went into the station.

If a child can’t recognise the word station immediately as a sight word, the reader will be aware that the train went somewhere and this somewhere must begin with the easy to remember ‘st’ sound and even ends with an n sound. A reader who has been taught to use a combination of cues will reconstruct this writer’s message quickly and without the pain and time-consuming ‘sounding it out’. This is because they use only the most productive visual cues. This use of syntactic cueing is further evidenced in Bissex’s (1986) study where she notes a child, at the age of two, practising substitutions in his own sentence frames.

Phonics Can Lend A Helping Hand Towards Comprehension Or Sabotage It

Taking the above into account, it can follow that children must be taught basic phonics rules to make decoding problem words easier. The issue is not whether children should be taught phonics. The issues now are specific ones of just how it should be done.

Much of the current phonics drive goes well beyond what is needed by children or indeed adults. Basic phonics can be a useful tool for the identification of unfamiliar words – just not as the primary means. Rather it should act as a supportive partner to other cueing systems described above. If we want children to read for meaning, which I’m sure all of us do, children using all their knowledge of the world (schemas) and language – and the fact  that words must ‘fit’ together – and make sense (syntactic), is usually all that is required to enable them to read unidentified words.

But basic phonetic knowledge is helpful when a child needs to make a choice from among possible plausible words. For example:

The postman put a l______ through the door.

The unknown word of course could be package, letter or box. Noting, however, that the word begins with l tells the reader it is ‘letter’. However, if the child has only been taught the phonetic cueing system that of sounding out of the word this simple task could soon become an incredibly boring, time-consuming and above all unnecessary task. Remember too that each time a child has to stop to decode the individual letters in a word, they are losing their connection to the context of the piece and by the end are unlikely to have any clue what the text was about as a whole.

So with this being true, what should be included in a phonics program to make it a useful aid to word identification? Well, consonant symbol-sounds, including consonant-diagraphs and blends (ch, th, sh, bl etc..), are important as most words begin or end with them. This knowledge alone should give a child enough leverage over unfamiliar words to quickly become a competent reader.

Teaching the 27 vowel generalisations is unlikely to be helpful or necessary. Analysis of the 650 most common words (Artley, 1976) showed that 68% of them conform to simple long and short vowel sounds and so these certainly could be taught. In polysyllabic words the percentage was 80%. This means that 4 in every 5 words could be read if children were taught the long and short vowel symbol-sound relations. On coming to a problem word they could simply pronounce both to see which would make logical sense. Take for example the following:

The smoke is coming th-r-oo the window. This works in context a lot better than th-r-ow.

Such a procedure is often already done by children anyway. Take for example when they are exposed to words like troop, boot and foot, where there is no rule. Yet another example could be trialling the difference between the pronounced e and the silent e. Take for example:

I had a good ______ at the party. This will need only to try time and tim-e.

Context Is The Quickest Way To Word Identification (With Some Help From Its Friend Phonics). 

Remember that syntactic context consists of the innate signals that very young children learn which include grammatical understanding of word endings, function words and typical grammatical word order (what Chomsky calls deep structures). We also have semantic context which consists of the meaningful relationships between amongst words. If you’d like to see how grammar as well as meaning can aid in the identification of words, look at the example below:

  1. Furry wild-dogs fight furious battles.
  2. Furry teachers create distressed stains.
  3. Furry fights furious wild-dog battles.
  4. Furry create distressed teacher stains.

The first sentence is the easiest to process, because it has both grammar and meaning, normal word order and it makes reasonable sense. The hardest to process has neither grammar nor meaning.

Various studies (see references below) indicate that both grammar and meaning aid in the identification and recall of words. Both syntactic and semantic context are important, as you have probably concluded from all the examples above so far.

Children can use contexts (schemas) that they have outside or beyond the text as well as within the text to identify words quickly and easily. For example they will use context from the sentence before the one being read as well as context before the word currently being identified. All readers will also sometimes read after – to gain context. I know I do, particularly in academic reading.

This next example really does bring this all into perspective. Using syntactic and semantic context you will quickly figure out what the missing words are in this passage. To further aid you, you have been given some basic grapho/phonic clues to confirm your informed guesses.

The Beaver

Native-Americans call beavers the ‘little men of the woods.’

But a__ they really so very little? S___ beavers grow to be ____ or four feet long _____ weigh from 30 to 50 p_____.

These ‘little men __ the woods’ are busy a___ of the time. That __ why we sometimes say ‘b____ as a beaver’. B___ know how to build d___ that can hold water. Th____ use their two front t____ to do some of ___ work.

The various kinds of contexts within the sentence will have helped you to narrow the alternatives to such a point that we need to use only a small amount of grapho/phonic information to identify the word in question. Sometimes you will notice you didn’t need that visual information at all. The benefit of this approach to reading is that it much closer to the real purpose of reading, that of the exchange of meaning between the text and the reader and that is is much faster and more efficient. When children are exposed to this type of reading approach not only are they taking part in the authentic purpose of reading from the very off, they grow up not normally having to rely just on grapho/phonics. Rather, they can use context to reduce their reliance and so become fluent and engaged readers of whole texts.

  1. Context: Children use their store of knowledge, experience plus syntactic knowledge of preceding context (both words and sentences) in order to make an informed guess of what might come next.
  2. The Word Itself: Using only the simplest of visual cues as necessary to confirm their informed guess, they identify the word.
  3. Context: Use this new found context to confirm or correct their informed guess.

Don’t Make Children Read Words In Isolation

Goodman’s (1965) study concluded that a group of 5/6 year olds could read 62% of words they couldn’t read in isolation, when they were read in context.6/7 year olds were able to read 75% in context and 7/8 year olds were able to read 82%. Murphy’s (1982) & Allington’s (1980) study provided very similar results. With this said, it is right that children be exposed to high-quality texts and reading-for-pleasure opportunities as possible, rather than activities which treat reading as ‘learning to read to pronounce words’, as seen in this video.

This may mean that children who read words in sentences rather than study them in lists or on flash cards may be slower to learn to recognise words in isolation. But when will children need to recognise words in isolation? Oh for the phonics test of course! Back in the real-world of reading however, words typically occur in context and for purpose. If indeed children learn to develop a stock of sight words somewhat more slowly through reading itself, so be it. The compensation is that children typically have a much greater understanding of what the words actually mean and is far closer to the actual purpose behind reading. Children are reading for meaning, not to identify sounds or single words. They are using and further refining the strategies characteristic of proficient readers (see references) for more details.

Phonic-Book Sets

We also need to consider the impact of phonic-book sets. Amazingly, these are often incredibly hard to read. They are often obligated to simplify and restrict the language in them to such a degree that they often get to the point where the selections are more difficult or boring to read precisely because the language is so unnatural and warped.

Artful writing entails the creation of truly rhythmic language, and rhythmic structures are easier to anticipate than the choppy and stilted prose typical of [phonic book sets]. Reader In The Writer, CLPE (2012) – p.37

When reading these phonic sets, you often have to ask yourself: who ever uttered a sentence like that? No one places deliberate and artificial letter/sound restrictions on themselves so why should these books? This makes it nearly impossible for children to use them in order to develop their own understanding about real print and how it really works. They are left at a disadvantage. Virtually all phonic-book sets focus at the outset on skills for identifying sounds or words rather than on strategies for constructing meaning from the text as a whole.

We should be encouraging children to recognise significant words so that they can see how learning the sounds of letters as meaningful and easy, rather than the other way round. For example, Frank Smith, states that learning long but meaningful sentences is much easier to understand and remember than elliptical telegraphic sequences often offered up by the phonic-book-sets. When language is normally used, the richness of detail in longer sentences helps the reader to understand the theme. Short sentences however, are a strain on both memory and patience. Real stories written by experienced authors, rich with plot, narrative interest, and character development, are easier to comprehend than a few truncated sentences put together by instructional phonic programs. Artificial language is required only to make these nonsensical texts look good at what they do.

There is a constant battle for control of classrooms between educational publishers, governmental ‘authority-stamping’ and test producers who want to hold teachers accountable for delivering instruction in the misguided wisdom that they think they know best how children are taught; then you have the teachers who know there is a better way.

Children should be asked to read every-day – and should avoid having to read artificially ‘simplified’ or contrived language, which doesn’t represent real books or the real world. There is no need to have a division between ‘learning to read’ and ‘reading to learn’, like a sole phonic approach does. From the very beginning, children can be presented with and encouraged to read real texts with real purpose.

Phonics In Review

  1. Since vowels are relatively unimportant in identifying words, it seems unnecessary to teach numerous vowel rules, as most phonics programs do.
  2. Spelling/sound correspondences are often very complex and not easily reducible to rules that can or should be taught.
  3. Only a few of the frequently taught rules are both consistent and comprehensive – that is, applicable to a considerable number of words.
  4. Even most of these rules probably do not need to be explicitly taught to whole classes of children, since most children can and will internalize spelling/sound patterns just by reading a lot and/or with minimal guidance in observing correspondences and patterns.
  5. Thus most children probably do not need nearly a much phonics instruction as they are typically receiving in today’s phonics programs and phonic-book-sets. (Weaver, 2009, pp.778)

Extreme phonic instruction then is a foolish, impudent and odious endeavour. Today’s phonics teaching  drills have pizzazz but what I find foolish is the basic premise – that reading can be achieved by drilling students on discrete skills. What are these skills good for? What should the child actually do with them? Unfortunately, it seems, acquisition is the only goal. It’s merely there to encourage the foul bureaucratic impulse for collection, storage and retrieval of data and so called ‘progress’. Instead of assuming that children can only read what they have been taught, we must assume that they can only read what they understand and can interact with, and that the teaching of sounds has some but not a great deal of influence on this process.

As teachers we must help children to select the most productive reading skills: to use their knowledge of language structure, to draw on their experiences and concepts. I hope teachers are looking to nurture their students in an environment that convinces them they might want to read a book. I’ve seen too many proficient decoders, children who perform extremely well on standardised tests but are never willingly pick up a book. This is because they have mastered an incomplete system, one they find lacking in marvel or mystery.

Phonics Screening Tests & Commercial Interests In Phonics Research 

There is an irony surrounding the endeavour to remove the personal and possibly prejudicial from education evaluation. Supposedly, phonic screening tests are looking to assess children’s progress in learning to ‘read’. The reality though is that it results in the totally arbitrary and distorted procedure of teaching only those things that can be cleanly scored right or wrong, and counted. The cost of removing human error for the sake of testing has been the removal of all humanity and the reduction of reading education to trivia.

Warwick Mansell published a damning account of [over testing] in education.

[He] sets out in comprehensive and sometimes shocking detail, the pressure on teachers to deliver the improving test statistics by which the outside world judges them is proving counter-productive. Schools have been turning increasingly into exam factories… Intellectual curiosity is stifled. And young people’s deeper cultural, moral sporting social and spiritual faculties are marginalised by a system in which all must come second to delivering improving test and exam numbers.

It’s important to remember too what Frank Smith articulates, which is: ‘in an evidence oriented enterprise, those who control the evidence-gathering, control the entire enterprise’ (Insult To Intelligence, p.130). Presently, that would be major publishing houses  (producing largely phonics material for schools – please click this link, it is illuminating), phonics companies and the exam companies who received around £328m in the decade ending 2012. Respected Doctor of Language Reading Ken Goodman states clearly that: ‘it’s a political campaign, tightly controlled, carefully manipulated, and [that] most of the players don’t even know they’re being used’.

You’ll also find it interesting perhaps to find that Ruth Miskin, who has huge commercial interest in phonics, proposed phonics be placed into the curriculum in a heavyhanded way despite all the other members of the advisory panel as well as the English Association, the United Kingdom Literacy Association and the National Association for the Teaching of English raising serious doubts.

According to Grainger (2012), when one examines the authorship, sponsorship and recommendations of these reports (for example), it begins to look as if, far from being a well-balanced and informed discussion of the issues of reading, they are biased in the direction of certain pre-existing views and interests. It would be overly cynical to suggest that they were written with the sole aim of promoting the interests of certain professional groups, charities and companies. Nevertheless, it is a
worrying feature of these reports that their arguments for intervening in educational practice rely heavily on evidence produced by bodies that stand to gain.

We also have this research summary of the screening test from The British Educational Research Association (2016). ‘[teachers are] wrongly spending time teaching elements of phonic knowledge which will not be very useful either in the tests themselves or to the pupils in reading real books’. They go on to say… ‘The content of the [phonics screening] check correctly reflects the reality that only a small number of GPCs dominate the English language. Pupils should therefore spend time learning this small number quickly, and then move on to reading “real books”. This is further endorsed by The UK Literacy Association.

In heavily prescriptive phonics classrooms, there are two types of learner-reader:

  • One kind do well on the skill drills because they have enough control and experience of the reading process I have described throughout this article – therefore they don’t actually need much of this skill instruction.
  • The second kind have great difficulty with the sequenced skills presented to them because they are dealing with them as abstractions…such learner rarely profit from such skill instruction and often will receive even more as a result of their failure to acquire these said skills – which leads them even further away from the act of reading.

Further to this is Stephen Krashen’s assessment of phonics and reading:

‘Of great interest is the consistent finding that heavy phonics training only helps children do better on phonics tests. It has no impact on reading tests. Research also tells us that the best way to get better on reading tests is reading: The best predictor of reading achievement, in study after study, is the amount of recreational reading children have done. The problem is not insufficient phonics teaching, as some claim. It is insufficient access to books. For many children of poverty, their only source of books is the library. Research also tells us that better libraries are associated with better reading test scores. The implication is obvious: Invest in libraries and librarians, not in phonics tests.’

Fundamentalist Phonics Hasn’t Worked So Far

Michael Rosen, in this article, rightly asks the question why, after four years or more of phonics teaching, over 1 in every 4 seven-year-olds still can’t read at the expected level? Why hasn’t phonics solved the problem like many promise it will? Largely because of what has been outlined in this article is being ignored. ‘It may well be that in four years’ time those children will all reach the expected level, but by then they will have experienced many other influences on their reading (like the ones described in this article) and so it would be dodgy logic to assume phonics achieved this. Let’s stay in touch and see when we can say “phonics has eradicated illiteracy…”’


In conclusion, it is reasonable to conclude that phonetic cueing can only act as an aid to word identification and can’t be judged as a sound method for learning to read. Meaning is the beginning and the end of reading, but the means as well. The fact children who have been exposed to a militant phonics approach learn to read does not necessarily mean that they learned to read because of the approach, though people unaware of the nature of the reading process and what is involved in learning to read are of course inclined to make this assumption.

‘What works is not always phonics, and, in fact, for young children, what works best in reading may seldom be intensive phonic instruction’ (Carbo, 1987).

The reality is that we have children who:

The reason that most children are able – perhaps best able to learn to read without intensive phonics instruction is, as we have begun to see, learning to read involves much more than learning to sound out letters and identify words. This is further endorsed by The UK Literacy Association. It involves learning to bring one’s own experiences, feelings and knowledge to the task of transacting with a text, and it involves learning to use and coordinate all three language curing systems: syntactic, semantic and grapho/phonemic. For more information on this, you might want to read my post here.

Researcher Stephen Krashen (2004) identifies 51-studies that prove that children who are allowed to read freely perform better than or equal to students in phonic-reading programmes. However, Krashen (2004) also found that students’ motivation and interest in reading was higher.

It’s amazing then to think that children can learn to read with, or perhaps in spite of, an approach that focuses mainly on phonics. Luckily, children have a natural, innate tendency to create meaning by transacting with their environment. Children can translate print to their daily lives because many of them can naturally translate their reading to what they have learnt about spoken language as a baby and because they have a tremendous capacity for forming their own ways of thinking about how language works -again, a capacity clearly exemplified in their toddler years -where they learn to speak more and more like adults.

A child’s mind asks questions, seeks order, and monitors and corrects its own learning. These are natural functions of human mind. However, these are also functions that teachers have regarded as their own special domain, functions that teachers have so preempted that children often abandon them when in classrooms. Such distrust of a child’s mind in the classroom is but one manifestation of a militant phonics advocate’s distrust of the learning ability inherent in human mind.

‘Children are small; their minds are not.’ – Glenda Bissex

Children demonstrate their power to abstract, hypothesise, construct and revise all the time. Given this view of children, surely one role of reading instruction is to affirm each child’s inner teacher.

Finally then, when reading is taught with emphasis on meaning – context cues can become the dominant force and are the closest cues related to the actual purpose of reading, that of comprehending; this approach encourages rather than thwarts the acquisition of good reading strategies.  After all it is comprehending that makes an independent and life-long reader.

**Please note that the views expressed on this blog are our own and may not represent our employer.**


Alitto, H.J. & Usrey, W.M. (2003). Corticothalamic feedback and sensory processing. Current Opinion in Neurobiology, 13. 440-445.

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*References Related To Some Of The Issues With Evidence-Based & Positivist Research Being Used To Inform Teaching Practice.

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